By Richard Clarke
Arsenal will have to win at the Riverside Stadium next Wednesday if they are to reach the Carling Cup final.
Arsène Wenger's young side were beaten 1-0 here at Highbury on Tuesday night by a committed Middlesbrough side in the semi-final first leg.
Both sides had chances in an even first half. However Juninho grabbed the only goal eight minutes after the restart, thumping a low shot past Graham Stack after Gaizka Mendieta's pass had given him room on the far side of the area.
Arsenal desperately searched for the equaliser in the final half-hour but they rarely tested visiting keeper Mark Schwarzer. Indeed, Joseph Desire-Job might have added another in the dying minutes.
Still at 1-0 this tie is very much alive and it could be a cracker in the North-East next week.
Meanwhile Boro are back on Saturday, this time in the FA Cup fourth round.
Before kick-off, Wenger, as usual, blended youth and experience into his Carling Cup side. Only Gilberto, Kanu and Pascal Cygan remained from the side that began against Aston Villa on Sunday but all five substitutes that day did start this time. Around them was packed youth in the form of Gael Clichy, David Bentley and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.
The last of those, along with substitute Ryan Smith, had played in for Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup just five days ago.
Middlesbrough were without injured captain Gareth Southgate but, apart from that notable exception, this was the best side they had available.
Highbury was well populated and, as with the earlier Carling Cup ties against Rotherham and Wolves, there was a party atmosphere.
After a sedate start, Kolo Toure nearly scored when he strode up from left back and thumped a low shot just wide of Schwarzer's right-hand post.
Soon afterwards the Australian keeper was nearly caught out when Kanu closed him down but he managed to get off his clearance.
It seemed Arsenal were cranking up the engine but, in fact it was Boro who could have taken the lead on two occasions soon afterwards.
In the 16th minute, George Boateng found Juninho on the edge of the area. The little Brazilian beat Stack with his shot but the ball hit the base of the post and bounced back into the grateful arms of the Republic of Ireland keeper.
Then three minutes later, Massimo Maccarone tried his luck from the corner of the area. His drive deflected off Toure and, fortunately for Arsenal, drifted past the far post with Stack desperately trying to recover.
Arsenal came back into the game quickly and, just past half hour, Kanu cut the ball back from the right for Bentley, who was positioned just outside the six-yard area. Unfortunately the 19-year-old miscued his shot and sent the ball high over the bar.
Five minutes before half time, Kanu dribbled through but also sliced his shot horribly wide.
The second half began with the same energy and endeavour that had characterised the first. Within four minutes, Juninho had again gone close. This time he collected Toure's skied clearance and produced a curling right-foot shot from the edge of the area that forced Stack into a spectacular save high to his left.
However in the 53rd minute the keeper was picking the ball out of the back of the net. Boro attacked down the left through Franck Queudrue, the ball squirted out to Mendieta on the edge of the area. The Spaniard spotted Juninho racing up unmarked on the far side of the area. The pass was perfect, as was the finish low into the corner.
Arsenal now had to respond. Kanu beat Ugo Ehiogu on the byline but his cut back trickled across the six-yard box before being hacked away. Then Martin Keown nodded a firm header over the bar.
However, inbetween those chances, only another sharp save by Stack kept Arsenal in touch. Maccarone's shot skidded off a surface made slippery by drizzle. The keeper again got down well to block.
Still overall, Arsenal were now in the ascendancy. There was an urgency about them. Bentley tested Schwarzer with a side-foot volley then Kanu gave substitute Jerome Thomas a chance at the near post.
But as often happens, the best opportunities went to the side under pressure. Two substitutes, Stuart Parnaby and Job combined for the latter to tap his shot over the bar from eight yards out.
Had that gone in, the second leg would be an arduous climb. It will be far from easy as it is, but this tie is not over yet.
|Toure holds off Riggott||Bentley takes on Mills|
|Clichy outpaces Doriva||Zenden lets Edu pass|
|Bentley wrongfoots Mendieta||Ehiogu gets a foot in on Thomas|
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